In 1099 the Franks (Al-Franj in the Arabic) invaded he lands of the Seljuk Turks after receiving a request from the Byzantine Emperor Alexios Komnenos to return lost lands to the Christians. 90 before this time, the Fatimid Caliph Al-Hakim Bi-Amir Allah of Egypt had ordered the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. His reign was a great change from that of the previous Conquerors such as the Caliph Omar who had taken it in 634 and respected the freedom of Religion.
This event helped spark the crusades, leading to a flood of successive armies of Western Christians heading to the Holy Land with the view of reclaiming the city of Jerusalem for Christian. This brought about a problem for the local Christian residents; they had lived with the Muslim conquerors for centuries now but now became the subject of suspicion due this onslaught and threat from their fellow religionists. The Greek and Syriac Communities were expelled from Aleppo and other cities for fear of betrayal though as we will see, the Christians of the Levant had as much to fear as the Muslims did.
In November of that year the Crusaders took Jerusalem and killed all inside.
Raymond of Aguilers, a Chronicler of the Franks described the events:
“Wonderful sights were to be seen. Some of our men (and this was more merciful) cut off the heads of their enemies; others shot them with arrows, so that they fell from the towers; others tortured them longer by casting them into the flames. Piles of heads, hands and feet were to be seen in the streets of the city. It was necessary to pick one’s way over the bodies of men and horses. But these were small matters compared to what happened at the Temple of Solomon, a place where religious services are normally chanted … in the temple and the porch of Solomon, men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins. Indeed it was a just and splendid judgement of God that this place should be filled with the blood of unbelievers since it had suffered so long from their blasphemies.”
This is supported by the Damascene Chronicler Ibn al-Qalanisi’s account:
“The Franks stormed the town and gained possession of it. A number of the townsfolk fled to the sanctuary and a great host were killed. The Jews assembled in the synagogue, and the Franks burned it over their heads. The sanctuary was surrendered to them on guarantee of safety on 22 Sha’ban [14 July] of this year, and they destroyed the shrines and the tomb of Abraham”
From then on, things got worse for the Oriental community and other Orthodox. Again, Ibn al-Qalanisi explains:
“One of the first measures taken by the Franj was to expel from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre all the priests of the Oriental Rites - Greeks, Georgians, Armenians, Copts and Syrians - who used to officiate jointly, in accordance with an old tradition respected by all previous conquerors. Dumbfounded by their degree of fanaticism, the dignitaries of the Oriental Christian communities decided to resist. They refused to tell the occupiers where they had hidden the True Cross, on which Christ died… But the invaders were not impressed. They arrested the priests who had been entrusted with custody of the Cross and tortured them to make them reveal the secret. Thus did the Franj manage to forcibly deprive the Christians of the Holy City wherein lay their most precious relics.”
Over the next 70 years the same cycle continued of Frankish raids on cities and both Frank and Muslim accusing the Orthodox community of collaboration with their opponents. In the North, there was also the issue of Latin mistrust for the Byzantines and their Sympathisers.
The most shocking example was to come through the actions of Prince Reynald of Chantillon, Frankish prince of Antioch. After torturing the Latin patriarch of Antioch into financing his military the young Prince decided to invade the Orthodox Kingdom of Cyprus in 1156. After murdering a vast number of the population and plundering the entire Island he committed a heinous act. Amin Maalouf explains:
“Before departing with booty; Reynald ordered all the Greek Priests and Monks assembled; he then had their noses cut off before sending them, thus mutilated, to Constantinople.”
Around this time in Egypt, the situation of the Copts was improving. A General of the Damascene Sultan Nur-Ad-Din called Salah-Ud-Din Ayyubi had seized power and eventually united the Islamic world. His general view of the Christians of the Levant was far more lenient than others and he was known for his generosity and trust (Many of his own advisors called him a gullible fool, since he almost bankrupted the palace treasury). Amongst his closest advisors were Copts, who he also hired to help build palaces and fortresses across Egypt.
In 1187 he won a decisive victory over King Guy of Jerusalem and arrived at the gates of the city. By this time the Oriental Community in Frankish Jerusalem had already warmed to him, as is described by the Chroniclers in his forces who said:
“One of the Sultan’s chief advisors was an Orthodox Priest by the name of Yusuf Batit. It was he who took charge of contacts with the Franj, as well as with the Oriental Christian communities. Shortly before the siege began, the Orthodox clerics promised Batit that they would throw open the gates of the city of the occidentals held out too long.”
And so Jerusalem fell, Saladin invited the Armenian and Greek Patriarchs back into the city, which was followed by the moving of the Latin patriarchate to Acre. After an agreement with the Byzantine emperor Isaac II Angelos, Saladin returned the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Which he had turned into a Mosque) back to the Christians. This was the first time that they had been welcomed back since 1099. The Armenians were also given an Equal status in the city to the Greeks.
As for the Armenians, they also faced oppression but not on such a scale, yet it had a far longer lasting effect on the culture.
Robert Thomson explains it better than I ever could:
The books this extract is from is absolutely brilliant for the whole topic of the Crusades through the eyes of the Oriental and Byzantine communities. I would recommend it as well as Aamin Maalouf’s ‘The Crusades through Arab eyes’ which deals with the Syriac view well.